Shakespeare and Terrorism:

a week in Ashland

We're all thinking in confused terms -- I hope -- about the terrible events in New York and Washington on September 11.  It's too early to try to sort things out, at least for me.  That doesn't deter me from having some opinions.  I put here the ones that come first to mind, along with some of the things I've been reading.  I'd appreciate your sending my your own comments, particularly reading you've done that has helped explain how this has come about, and what might be done about it.

How we first heard of the attacks

The first comments from friends

Anthems and sexes

A significant book: Blowback, by Chalmers Johnson

Images of people around the world expressing their sympathy for us during this time 


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©2001 Charles Shere



We were in Ashland, Oregon, on Sept. 11.  We had arrived the previous day, having driven up to spend a week seeing plays.  I had expected to write a few of my Travel Dispatches from there, but like so many of us we spent too many hours glued to television, watching the same footage over and over.  In the event there was only one dispatch,  repeated below dated Sept. 12, slightly edited:

Ashland, Tuesday, September 11--
I went downstairs about eight to find the other two couples -- John and Gaye, Stefan and Rhoanne -- sitting at the breakfast table staring at a tiny television set.  One of the World Trade Center towers was burning.  In a moment an airplane flew into the other, the now-familiar orange burst of flame following with surrealistic determination.

My first thought: Something's gone tragically wrong with the air guidance systems.  The planes used to dive into Long Island Sound; now they're being guided into the World Trade Center.  Why is this happening?  Is it sabotage?

The rest of the day is confusion.  Somehow we have lunch; we go to a play (Enter the Guardsman, a musical based on the old Ferenc Molnar play), we are distracted; we go to a second play.  We talk, we drink, we talk, we watch television.  We even manage to go to sleep, exhausted.

First inquiries from friends:
John Whiting, London: Are you OK?

Gabriella and Franco Rampi, Italy: siamo sconvolti per quanto successo oggi nel vostro paese.
Non troviamo le parole per definire quanto accaduto. Speriamo che  voi stiate bene.

Dominique Escoubet, Nice: Chers Charles et Lindsey,
Juste un petit mot pour vous dire que nous pensons bien à vous après ces événements terribles.
Lots of love

John Rockwell, New York (responding to the query: Are you all right?) Yeah, physically; a little shaky psychologically.

Wednesday, Sept. 12 (Travel dispatch via e-mail)
We're in Ashland, a small college town in southern Oregon much influenced by its principal industry, tourism attracted by the professional production of theater. It's home to maybe 20,000 citizens, but numbers over a hundred restaurants and dozens of motels and B&Bs.

There's a college campus, and with perhaps a dozen book and record stores the town has an intelligent and humanistic character.  We are here to see seven plays in seven days.  The main preoccupation here is Shakespeare, and we're here to see four plays of his.

It's in many ways an ideal place to be this terrible week.  The show does go on, but goes on responsively.  Last night we saw The Merchant of Venice, in a particularly gripping production with a uniformly strong cast.

Christians and Jews repeated their mutual contempt in the eternally amoral Venice.  The play was just as Shakespeare wrote it, and he wrote his comedy about situational ethics, just as he found them.  Christian and Jew take for granted the morality of business as usual: the galleys laden with treasures, the interest on carefully considered loans of money.  Social morality -- the good-and-bad of human interactions -- rides on the transport and exchange of goods, as we ironically call them.  Rings, treasure-caskets, and ducats punctuate these interactions; and for that to work, elaborate social conventions of tribe and family, class and law are evolved.

On and on the television drones in the big comfortable quiet house we share with three other couples.  The attacks are on the symbols of American power, we're continuously reminded:  the World Trade Center; the Pentagon.  This power has secured our country as "the leader of the Free World," but it is vulnerable. Ironically the vulnerability is exacerbated by, perhaps inherent in the American way of life: the open society, the freedom of travel and access, the right of the citizen to privacy in his daily life.  And, I think, the complacency that comes so easily to the rich and privileged.

That complacency is perhaps most obvious in our assumptions that the "American Way," whatever it is, is the right way for the entire world, and for the 21st century.  We all, in daily life, assume that some things have evolved to a state of correctness, if not of near-perfection.  I mean certain values and ideals, societal institutions, norms of business, transportation, communication, education.

Shakespeare shows the Venetians of his time in a similar mood, and reveals through his narrative the irrational individual human damage done by such assumptions.  As our newspapers do today.

Thursday, Sept. 13
If on Tuesday Ashland seemed dazed, yesterday it -- or our little corner of it -- seemed irrelevant.  We were constantly aware, of course: John buys the Oregonian, theChronicle, the New York Times; we all sit around in the kitchen watching a flickering little TV screen; I log on to see what foreign newspapers and CNN have to say.

And we go to the theater.  In the afternoon it was The Tempest, with a stunning set, a strong cast, and a concept both detailed and generalizing: Prospero is cast as a woman, the Duchess of Milan, usurped not by her brother but a sister.  Again the social classes Shakespeare takes for granted are curiously familiar and reasonable: rulers, servants, adjutants, sailors, fools.  All needed for a comprehensive human system, and if each does his job well, with an eye to justice and willing to subvert greed and opportunism to a sense of duty and decency, all's wll that ends well.

But in the evening we are wrenched back. Troilus and Cressida is a long and bitter condemnation of nine years of stalemate in the pursuit of vengeance.  War and lechery; war and lechery, says Prologue, returning to repeat the mantra at the exhausted close.  Another caution as we return to the news.

In the meantime it has rained and the sun has come out. A flock of four deer occupied the back lawn all day yesterday.  We have eaten well -- Ashland, like other towns, has developed a sense of culinary discrimination.

And hope and beauty remain, and the young love animating Shakespeare's poetry.  Tuesday night had been cloudy, but toward the end of The Merchant of Venice the stars came out above the open Elizabethan Theater.  And, before long, there was the young lover Lorenzo to remind us of the transitoriness of human events and failures, the reassuring cycle of natural events and promise:

          Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Friday, Sept. 14: Anthems and sexes
More television, more newspapers.  But at ten o'clock we gathered, Stefan and Rhoanne and Lindsey and I, for a backstage tour of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  We see the Black Swan Theater, and learn that it was born of the actors' need to improvise plays of their own choosing in the early days of this Festival, twenty or thirty years ago.  Then in the two main theaters, the outdoors Elizabethan and the enclosed Bowmer, we see the immense and complex world of dressing rooms, costumes and wigs, lighting boards, and backstage crossovers.

Hundreds of men and women make up this undertaking: actors, designers, directors, mechanics, craftsmen, electricians, seamstresses; hundreds of them paid, hundreds volunteering.  It is the largest repertory theater in the country, the second biggest in the world.

The tour is cut short, for a memorial service has been gathered to honor the national day of mourning.  We assemble in the Bowmer Theater.  A woman reminds us, unnecessarily but eloquently, why we're there.  A man plays the shakuhachi, mournfully I suppose, reflectively and objectively, I would say.  We stand for a minute or two of silence.

Not knowing what else to do we sit back down, still silent.  Then someone begins to sing "America the Beautiful."  The song has been sung so many times this week: it is the popular National Anthem, more lyrical, more sentimental, than The Star-Spangled Banner.  I can't help being a critic. Francis Scott Keyes's anthem is rooted in the War of 1812, a little warlike in its description of those bombs bursting in air, always recalling the East Coast;  "America the Beautiful" sings of a wider nation, purple mountains and fruited plains.

I can appreciate "America the Beautiful," but the audience isn't content with it.  They continue without a break into "God Bless America," a song that always annoys me.  It's so specifically religious.  "America the Beautiful" asks God to shed His grace on our country; but "God Bless America" pleads, as if the country is -- well, under attack:

Stand beside her, and guide her,
Through the night to the light from above.
These songs are isolationist, separating our country off from the rest of the world, pleading our cause as if it should be one specially favored.  I am in an internationalist mood; I want our crown of brotherhood to extend well beyond the shining seas.  I leave the service with a bad taste in my mouth.

But then we go to a marvelous lecture given by Penny Metropulos, the director of the production of The Tempest we'd seen yesterday afternoon.  Pressed for time because of the impromptu memorial, she runs quickly over her notes concerning her approach to the play, then generously answers many questions.  Several have to do, of course, with her idea of casting Prospero as a woman.

I tell her that Prospero seems to me not so much an introduction of feminine qualities, in her production, as a minimization of the excessively masculine.  Shakespeare seems often to do this, sometimes by putting women in men's clothes -- Portia, for example, pleading for the defense in The Merchant of Venice -- sometimes by placing his heros firmly in what the French call the troisième age, the age beyond generative (and therefore often hyperactive) sexuality: King Lear; Prospero.  It seems to me, particulary this week, that the excessively masculine needs to be looked at and analyzed, considered as to its worth in the current age; and I wonder whether she was driven by that idea in her approach to this play; and whether she has read, and was perhaps influenced by, the first chapter of Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae.

But my question is drowned out by construction noises from outside -- "excessively masculine," I point out -- and she quite properly brushes off my improperly complex question.  Still it seems to me the central issue of this week's curious intersection of Shakespeare and terrorism.  Those towers, the World Trade Center, always seemed to me aggressive and arrogant, thrusting themselves unnecessarily over the Manhattan below.  There is something curiously adolescent about the United States, born in rebellion against the old world but (in spite of the sobering War Between the States) never quite matured to take a place equal to the nations it had fled.  Unattacked in the twentieth century -- for Pearl Harbor had been inflicted on a "possession," not one of its States -- it was able to build quickly, to gather strength with unprecedented speed, and to lead the victory that ended World War Two.  The Cold War that followed was a youthful exercise of that leadership over a ruined Europe.  We preened our democratic plumage over the immediate dissolution of empire: Africa; India; the East Indies.  The natural course of political and societal structure seemed to be under correction, exactly as Shakespeare had foretold in The Tempest. I made a note in my journal: "letting go; nature taking course; course-correction; restoration."

We went out to dinner and discussed all this with our friends and then went to see Chekov's The Three Sisters. More resonance:

VERSHININ: It goes without saying that you cannot conquer the mass of darkness round you; little by little, as you go on living, you'll be lost in the crowd. You'll have to give in to it. Life will get the better of you, but still you'll not disappear without a trace. After you there may appear perhaps six like you, then twelve and so on until such as you form a majority. In two or three hundred years, life on earth will be unimaginably beautiful, marvellous.
And, of course, the close of the play:
OLGA [embraces both her sisters]. The music is so happy, so confident, and you long for life! O my God! Time will pass, and we shall go away for ever, and we shall be forgotten, our faces will be forgotten, our voices, and how many there were of us; but our sufferings will pass into joy for those who will live after us, happiness and peace will be established upon earth, and they will remember kindly and bless those who have lived before. Oh, dear sisters, our life is not ended yet. We shall live! The music is so happy, so joyful, and it seems as though in a little while we shall know what we are living for, why we are suffering. . . . If we only knew -- if we only knew!
The music grows more and more subdued; KULYGIN, cheerful and smiling, brings the hat and cape; ANDREY pushes the baby carriage in which BOBIK is sitting.
CHEBUTYKIN [humming softly]. "Tarara-boom-dee-ay!" [Reads his paper.]  It doesn't matter, it doesn't matter.

OLGA. If we only knew, if we only knew!


Interlude: The Weekend, Sept. 15-16
On Saturday we went to the gallery at Southern Oregon University to see a retrospective of stage designs by Richard L. Hay, who also designed all three theaters.  In more ordinary times it would have been absorbing, but I found a familiar worry gnawing at me.  How, when the world is threatening to crumble, can theater -- any entertainment, any art -- be justified?  I recall that discussion thirty-five years ago, when I asked Gerhard Samuel how we could go on writing music while listening to the nightly body count during the Vietnam War, and his response: you can't stop doing the things that wars are fought to make society safe for them to be done.  And I think about the book I've brought for nighttime reading: Virginia Woolf's 1934 novel The Waves, printed in England in its third edition in 1943, at the height of the war that threatened to burn her London to the ground.

That night we dined, Lindsey and I, at New Sammy's, one of the best restaurants I know anywhere.  Vern and Michael wait tables; Vern makes desserts (I think), Charlene is alone in the kitchen.  Sammy, in his early 'teens, washes pots and pans.  Thursday through Sunday, during the theater season only, reservations essential.  I suppose twenty people can be served simultaneously, no more.  The scale is modest; the knowledge and technique is mastered.  This is the best scale for human activity.

At the other table in our little room -- there are three -- was a group of six old-timers.  We heard one mention that in two weeks he'd be turning ninety-two.  They ate and drank attentively and with enjoyment, talking about other meals they'd had, places they'd been:  Fiji.  Tahiti. New Zealand.  France.  England.

They come from up the road, Vern said, maybe once a month or so; they live in a retirement community there; this is their chance to get out and have a bottle or two of wine and eat well.  They're fun.

A long walk Sunday up to the ridge and back, talking to people we met along the way, petting dogs, noting the modest cottages on the older streets, the inevitable huge fortresses on the newer ones.  Then a drive 100 miles north to Roseburg to meet Giovanna, who'd driven 200 miles down from Portland to hand off Eve to us.  Eve had been to camp, then taken the bus to Portland to visit.  Her flight was cancelled home and she'd ride with us.

We converged on Roseburg, fixing the final meeting point with our mobile phones.  I suppose everyone will carry them now.  Will the airlines ever be able to restrain people from using them again, I wonder, especially at take-off.  We meet at an off-ramp and try to find a cafe for an hour's conversation.  There's only one place: Dairy Queen.  Once again I think of that Sunday three weeks ago, Chez Panisse's long lunch in honor of its thirtieth birthday.

That day had been so beautiful, so pleasant, so sensuous, so full of promise.  It was like one bookend, I think, and last Tuesday, Black Tuesday, September 11, had been the other.  We must examine carefully the shelf in between those two bookends: how is it possible two such days can occur, so close together?  Is there something in the one that contributes to the other?  Are they the extremes of a continuum?

We drive back to Ashland in time for our last play, The Merry Wives of Windsor.  For the first time Shakespeare seems irrelevant.  There's nothing here to help understand those bookends.  The production's marvelous, with finely honed clowning, wonderful costumes.  It's pure zaniness.  How could Shakespeare have been content to write something so trivial, so devoid of depth, of poetry, of meaning?  And then I remember:  it was ordered, they say, by the Queen, who was apparently in no mood to hear of war -- lechery could play alone, for a change.

Monday, Sept. 17: The Return Home
Today we left the Ashland house early, had breakfast with the two couples we'd spent last week with, and drove home.  The intent was to go straight home without losing time, but we couldn't resist a detour, turning east from Hornbrook, at the extreme north of California, then driving through the town of Montague and then through that curious volcanic desert to highway 97, then turning southwest to Weed and highway 5.

That desert country is beautiful.  There are strange cones and fumaroles scattered across the landscape, and vast pastures whose thin topsoil clearly lies on stretches of ancient lava.  Here and there a column of basalt recalls the core of an otherwise long-since eroded volcano.  There's not much flora: the wide alfalfa fields, of course; then, as you rise toward four thousand feet, sparse mixed forest, some oaks among the pines.

You can't believe there are thirty million people in this state.  Hornbrook: a few houses,  a store or two.  No gas station.  No one to be seen.  Montague: one block of storefronts, sixty or seventy years old at least, across a wide street from an empty space where a train station once stood.  One gas station.  While I pump my gas a hound stretches out on the asphalt in front of my right front tire; I have to shoo him away when we drive off.

The improbable cones and fumaroles, often mimicking the double peaks of Mt. Shasta further south.

It's dry and hot.  Hardly any snow on Mt. Shasta; hardly any water in the lake.  We drive fast, listening to the news.  We stop in Willows for ice cream.  It's more civilized than Roseburg: there's espresso here.  I ask if I can have one with some vanilla ice cream in it.  I can do that, the girl says, I've done that a couple of times for folks that wanted it.

I ask her how the town responded to the attack.  Lots of flags, she said.  Some folks are mad; they say we got to get them terrorists.  It looks like maybe war.  I don't want war, she says; I read things on the internet, I know there's lots of Muslims don't agree with this.  I know there are reasons that some people are angry with us.  How can you have a  war when you don't have an enemy country?

Last month I read a book that explains clearly and simply why a good many people around the world are exasperated with the United States.
The book is Blowback, by Chalmers Johnson.  Johnson's own account of what his book is about, and how he came to write it, is at
I first heard about the book in Cal Monthly, the UC Berkeley alumni magazine.  That interview is fascinating and informative.  You can read it online at
The book hasn't generated a lot of copy in the popular press as far as I know, but a Google search for <"Chalmers Johnson" Blowback> turned up quite a few hits, including a number of reviews.   I read only three of them:  by Colin Allen,  by Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute, and by Walden Bello (!).

These sources discuss those aspects of American foreign policy -- including military and economic foreign policy -- which I feel have contributed greatly to resentment of the United States in many quarters.

Make no mistake, as the saying goes; the attacks were dreadful and cannot be excused or justified.  There should be no killing.  But perhaps they can be understood; I hope so.  We must not kill; but we should help to live.

Maybe you have other books to recommend.  Let me know about them, or columns, or websites.  I might add to this page in coming days and weeks.
 by Charles Shere  rev. 19 Sept 01
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©2001 Charles Shere